A school boasts a futuristic home — and goals to match

By Anita Little

In their mad rush hour frenzy to get to work on time, commuters will often pass a unique building as they merge onto the 110 enroute to Hollywood. This special building with its sloping chrome walls, its crazily winding buttresses and its cone-shaped parapets often leave people at a loss when they try to describe it. The structure has been likened by some to a futuristic spaceship. The “futuristic” is right.

The High School for the Visual and Performing Arts gives Los Angeles urban youth opportunities not often found in urban communities anywhere.

“It’s providing high quality education to a neighborhood that hasn’t had that and  is raising the bar for other LAUSD schools,” says Katherine Harrison, the executive director of the new high school. “We’re shifting the thinking in this area and trying to engage the community in education.

The $232 million high school, one of the most costly public school campuses in the nation, opened in early September of 2009 on the corner of Grand Avenue and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. The project started out as a simple enough idea: provide a school to the underserved downtown community that gives the rare opportunity of an arts education. It then blossomed into a sprawling complex that has added another facet to what community means in downtown Los Angeles and provided local children with a conduit to their aspirations.

“The main thing they are getting here is that we allow them to take more art courses than any other LAUSD school. They take eight classes a year and many of them are allowed to be art classes,” says Harrison.

Harrison, who was an art teacher for 12 years before accepting her current position at the high school, hopes the school’s emphasis on art will be a model to other schools where art programs are often nonexistent or underfunded.  The school has four academies where dance, music, theater and visual arts are taught into addition to a general education curriculum. The school’s mission is to show the relevancy of art in all fields, an instructional approach that academic studies have shown enriches a student’s education.

“Trigonometry classes are taught next door to dance lessons, and math teachers are required to somehow incorporate art in their curriculum,” says Harrison. “We want a more visual curriculum. Art seeps into every aspect of their education by design.”

The school’s unique downtown location is a major asset to the school’s mission as it’s close to the cultural centers of the Museum for Contemporary Art, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Ahmanson Theatre.

“We have a structured relationship with operas, theatre groups and museums, and it gives us a variety of additional programming,” said Harrison.

“The music students got to see a free dress rehearsal for the Lincoln Center Jazz Band, and we took a field trip to REDCAT theatre this semester to learn about backstage lighting and music. We have also built a partnership with MOCA.”

The competitiveness of admission into the high school reflects the demand in urban Los Angeles for increased arts education. The school received more than 300 applications for 120 freshman slots and despite barely being two years old, the school is operated its capacity with 1,700 students.

“I want our school to be seen as model in bringing back arts education,” said Harrison. “The arts is always seen as something extra or fluff, but I feel it’s one of the best ways to engage students.”

In addition to its dedication to promoting arts education, the school is also receiving attention for its wide spectrum of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Resembling a microcosm of the ethnic hodge-podge that is Los Angeles, the school attracts students from neighborhoods across the city including Koreatown, Echo Park, Pico-Union, MacArthur Park, downtown, West Los Angeles and many other communities. The school’s demographics break down into 70 percent Latino, 10 percent African-American, 10 percent Asian and 10 percent white.

“Our situation is unusual. Our school is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in Los Angeles, and it’s hard to imagine students from all these neighborhoods forming a cohesive unit,” said Harrison, who hopes the diversity will teach students to interact with people from different backgrounds.

“People assume local kids means brown kid,s but that isn’t true.” Harrison said. “Our school is large mix of kids from many communities. It’s a nice snapshot of L.A. in a way, and that’s refreshing.”

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